Right Tool, Wrong Application

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-02-01 Print this article Print

The media giant's publishing arm broke all its books into thousands of digital assets. But was it too late to win over the rest of the company?

Right Tool, Wrong Application

Larry Kirshbaum is a blurred visionary. He foresaw the import of creating digital assets but guessed wrong on the payoff.

The Book Group's chief executive championed developing a system for organizing all manner of text, headings and images as a way to cash in on the market for e-books. A June 2000 report by Andersen Consulting projected $2.3 billion in U.S. e-book sales by 2005, and anticipated 28 million people reading books on handheld screens. It didn't happen.

Beyond Kirshbaum's force of personality, the project got a boost from timing. He couldn't prove there was a return on investing the $2.5 million involved. But this was early 2000. Money still flowed freely for new interactive technologies.

"Time Inc. was very anxious to get something started because of what was going on in our industry," says Madans. "I have never seen anything move through this company so fast."

Had e-books taken off, perhaps the Book Group would not be on the block today. Electronic publishing seemed a way to transform the sleepy book business into the kind of high-growth vehicle promised to investors. Publishing would go from an old-media laggard to Internet star, and digital asset management would help make it happen.

In early 2000, Time Warner Trade Publishing—as it was then called—and other major publishers did not even retain complete, electronic copies of their books. Knowing digital technology was not going away, media companies began thinking in terms of creating big repositories, or vaults, for their assets. "We saw value, and the only way to get it was a central repository," Madans says.

The Book Group, backed by Time Warner's data center, was in the habit of building what it needed. Gore's Boston-based applications group, however, had its hands full with other jobs, including creating a corporate intranet, a sales reporting system, a data warehouse and a royalty tracking system. "We voted against customization because we had other commitments we were being held to," Gore says.

Studies done by Chris Green, Time Inc. strategic technologies analyst, led the Book Group to a pioneering software vendor called Artesia (see Dossier), which offered an application that needed little modification.

Based in a suburb of Washington, D.C., Artesia was a spin-off from Canadian publisher Thomson Corp., which had developed its own digital-asset management software.

The Book Group installed a version of Artesia's TEAMS software on a UNIX server. Gore had his staff trained by Artesia, then let his people handle modifications to the software. As Book Group employees got trained, they, in turn, created a training process that now is used in other information technology projects.

AOL Time Warner found it needed to make loading assets onto the system easier, along with the task of importing metadata from its data warehouse. "We built a more streamlined import process so people could import files through their browser," says Gore. His group also improved the system's search capability to make it easier to use across different work groups, and added the capability to extract and collect certain assets to send them together to Leung's customers. A full-time administrator and several full-time temps handled the job of getting the data into the system.

A hiccup came in summer 2001, when the Book Group upgraded to a newer version of TEAMS. In its initial rush to get going, the publisher had gone with a version that ran on its existing Oracle 8i platform.

But this version required a piece of software based on the Java programming language to be on users' computers. The new version was designed to make it possible to use the system from a Web browser. The change required retesting and retraining in the system.

Another bug became a feature. On the day assets are entered, they are not available to users until an end-of-day update takes place. A patch was developed to create a temporary repository for these new assets, away from the main archive. But instead of seeing this as an inconvenience, says Madans, users saw it as a way, with a couple of clicks, to see what new assets had gone on the system.

The basic implementation went live that October. The first part of the system in use was a digital vault known as "Final Truth"—the title of a Little, Brown bestseller about serial killers—because it housed the "final" versions of digital assets. Metadata was attached, and the assets could be reused.

The vault started with 185 current titles and 1,200 assets, including cover images, author biographies and ISBN numbers. The titles included in the first iteration in October 2000 were broken down into only a few asset types, such as cover image and jacket copy. Accenture consultants "were the scope police," says Madans, who kept the project on a fast track. Today the system has more than 33,000 assets, covering some 6,000 titles.

The software cost less than $1 million. Bringing in Accenture and a team from Artesia pushed the project cost closer to $2 million. The software runs on twin Sun servers in the Time Warner data center: one for the live application, and one for development, testing and staging.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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